Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched surprise inspections of National Football League (NFL) team medical staffs. This effort was in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by over 1,300 retired professional football players who allege that NFL medical staffs violated the Controlled Substances Act by overprescribing addictive medications, particularly opioid painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin. DEA agents searched bags and interviewed personnel. While this is an admirable effort on the part of the DEA, I am left with a question: What took them so long?
There is no doubt that the medical staffs who service big-name athletic teams, both on the professional and collegiate levels, routinely prescribe powerful painkillers and compromise treatment protocols—by dispensing pills without a medical exam and minimizing signs of re-injury, for instance—in order to keep athletes playing. The reason I can make this statement with certainty is simple. It happened to me.
During my sophomore year as a scholarship baseball player in college, I was swinging at a pitch when I felt a searing pain shoot through the left side of my body and dropped to one knee. The medical staff instantly determined that I could not continue playing and took me back to the clubhouse—where the trainers began discussing and devising ways to get me back on the field for the second game of that day’s doubleheader. While I tried to explain that I was in too much pain, the medical staff administered a shot and wrapped bandages around my midsection until I looked like a mummy. The pain from my injury was gone almost immediately. The pain I would experience due to poor medical care would last much longer.
While my coach and the medical staff acknowledged that I had a legitimate injury, they also openly agreed that the best thing that I could do “for the team” would be to get back on the field. This put a tremendous amount of pressure on me, a 19-year-old kid on a scholarship that I needed to keep. I was forced to choose between listening to my body say “stop” and listening to my coaches, teammates, and the medical staff say “go.”
Tests would reveal that I had a torn oblique muscle. The initial medical recommendation was for lots of rest. When my injury did not heal quickly enough, though, I was given a secondary recommendation: lots and lots of pills. What started with one pill every eight hours as needed quickly turned into as many pills as I could get as often as I could get them—and getting them was as easy as checking out a book from the library. All I had to do was mention that I was in too much pain to play or practice, and I would be offered a plastic bag of sample medications to hold me over until I could get a full prescription.
This became my new normal. I would wake up and take some painkillers to get to the game. The medical staff would then give me a shot and mummify my midsection. Not only did I play relatively pain-free, but I also played exceptionally well. The season I sustained the torn oblique, I was named conference player of the year and second-team all-American. The only time I suffered pain was after the game, whenever I bent over to pick up my equipment, stood up or sat down, or breathed too deeply. So it was back to the painkillers to help me get through the rest of my day.
After a few months of this, my normal changed again. The season ended; the games were finished; but I was just getting started on painkillers. With baseball season gone, so were prescriptions from the team medical staff. I thought that would be a problem, but it wasn’t. There were plenty of other sources—other doctors, other kids on campus—who got me the painkillers I now felt I needed.
Thankfully, I soon recognized that I was making a mistake in continuing my use and consulted a doctor not affiliated with the university. He educated me on the proper course of treatment for my injury and helped me gradually reduce my opiate use. When I finally stopped taking painkillers, more than a full year had elapsed since my original injury—which, I discovered, normally heals within four to six weeks. The door that opened with that first shot and initial pill took me 18 months to close.
Unfortunately, as the NFL lawsuit shows, my story is not unique. In this Washington Post article, two former NFL players—ex-offensive lineman Rex Hadnot and former linebacker Scott Fujita—detail an eerily similar portrait of sports-related injuries, overprescription of pills, and a lifetime of pain. Fujita remembers pill bottles the size of a soda can, unlabeled manila envelopes filled with narcotic painkillers given to anyone who raised a hand, and being given prescription painkillers four to five days a week—throughout an 11-year-career—plus a shot of the powerful anti-inflammatory Toradol on game day. Hadnot recalls athletic trainers doling out pills, playing through injuries and concussions with the help of both pills and a shot, and getting Toradol injections or pills once a week for nine years. What he doesn’t remember? Being told that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines state that Toradol shouldn’t be used for more than five days, because of the risk of kidney damage. What neither Fujita nor Hadnot remember? A doctor explaining opioids’ potential side effects and risk of addiction. They don’t remember it because it didn’t happen. It certainly didn’t with me.
By sharing their stories, these former players have the opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the need to heal sports injuries—rather than masking the symptoms with drugs that can lead to addiction and other health hazards.
Getting help when I did, I was able to heal both physically and mentally. Other ball players have not been so lucky. I have worked with a variety of athletes during my years in addiction treatment. Some of them could walk right past you without being noticed while others have featured prominently on your favorite teams. While the dream of athletic success unites them, so does the potential nightmare of addiction. They all want to compete, but they also deserve the chance to lead happy, healthy lives long after their days on the playing field are done. Let’s hope that more oversight of these teams’ prescribing practices will give them that chance.
Director, Hill A. Feinberg Academy
Phoenix House Texas